The long taboo of homosexuality brought about an early need for
gay men to secretly identify each other and communicate, bringing birth to "gay
code." While gay women had less established ways, examples for men included
manners of dress, such as wearing green in the 1800s or red ties in the 1920s,
and secret ways to refer to other gay persons in conversation, like "a friend of
Dorothy" (a reference to the iconic film "Wizard of Oz" and Judy Garland)
beginning in the 1950s, or being "in the life".
Over the last 30 years, certain
symbols have been adopted by the gay community as it has shed its
invisibility. And as marketer interest in the gay community has grown in the
last decade, companies have often included those symbols in advertising but without understanding their history
or meaning. Here is a look at a few of the most prominent:
In Nazi Germany,
Paragraph 175 was the notorious law passed to prohibit same-sex touching, with
an estimated 25,000 gay men convicted to concentration camps. Among the
elaborate patch symbols to identify despised classes in the camps was the
inverted pink triangle for gay men (black triangles for lesbians and
"anti-social behavior" among women). In the 1970s, the symbol was reclaimed by
the gay community to take away its negative power, and in the 1980s the direct
action group ACT UP (AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power) rolled it into their
marketing-savvy tactics by including it with a powerful poster that read
"Silence=Death." (Created by ad-hoc coalition Gran Fury.)
The eleventh letter of the
Greek alphabet, the lambda, was first chosen as a gay symbol when it was adopted
in 1970 by the New York Gay Activists Alliance, though its reasons are vague.
Nonetheless, in 1974 the lambda was subsequently adopted by the International
Gay Rights Congress held in Edinburgh, Scotland, and grew to become a symbol of
the gay liberation movement. Still, it never gained general awareness outside of
the gay community.
In the 1990s, the red
AIDS ribbon became a crossover symbol of society's tacit support of the gay
community as it mourned the many who died. Attention grew through the death of
closeted stars like Rock Hudson, extensive work by Elizabeth Taylor and
ribbon-wearing actors on Academy Awards programs. Although AIDS fears quickly
scared away corporate America's interest in the gay market that began in the
late 1970s, it wasn't until mainstream acceptance of the epidemic in the
mid-1990s that sponsors began delicately reentering the gay market.
Flag is now the most widely recognized gay symbol. It was first created in
1978 for San Francisco's Gay Freedom Celebration by Gilbert Baker, with eight
colors in horizontal stripes. The original flag contained two more stripes than
the six-striped one (red, orange, green, royal blue, violet) now regularly seen.
Baker's originally stated intentions for the colors were red for life, orange
for healing, yellow for sun, green for serenity with nature, turquoise for art,
indigo for harmony, violet for spirit and hot pink for sex, but today the
rainbow flag is widely embraced as a representation of the diversity of the gay
community. Although the gay stereotype still largely holds the image of the
young white male, the community is actually comprised of every race, creed,
color, national origin, age, religion, sex and disability.
As corporate America continues to grow comfortable with the gay
community, its advertising and use of imagery becomes more sophisticated.
Companies now incorporate "gay vague" imagery and messages, male beefcake,
lesbians as male fantasy, camp sensibility and clever language in marketing
efforts, though in mainstream ads gay stereotypes often remain an inspiration
for comedic effect and even homophobia is still used to sell products.
Nonetheless, marketers have also slowly begun to introduce
inclusive and balanced representations of the gay and lesbian community in their
mainstream messages. They are realizing that a majority of society now has gay
family members, friends and colleagues and that they are a daily part of our
culture and history.
Michael Wilke has written about the ad industry for over a
decade at Advertising Age, Inside Media and his work has also appeared in The
New York Times, Brandweek and The Advocate. He is now Executive Director of the
Commercial Closet Association, a unique non-profit advertising education and
journalism organization that is a global resource on gay representation in
advertising. Its archive of nearly 1,000 gay-themed ads worldwide, spanning 30
years, can be found at CommercialCloset.org.
Mike Wilke, July 25, 2002
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